19.11 - 23.05.2021
Chilean-born, New York-based artist Alfredo Jaar’s solo exhibition at the Zeitz MOCAA is a result of his comprehensive research and travels in Rwanda in the immediate aftermath of the 1994 genocide. Between 6 April and 15 July 1994, approximately one million people were slaughtered by extremist members of the Hutu majority. The minority Tutsi population, other Hutus and political opponents were all targeted during this genocide.
This six-year project serves as a tribute to the victims lost in the genocide and a critique of the western world’s reaction to the tragedy. ‘The Rwanda Project’ simultaneously underscores how one, as an outsider, can take part in the trauma and its aftermath, and acts as a critique of the world’s detachment and lack of action regarding the unfolding cruelties in Rwanda. Jaar calls on the public and the audience to consider our responsibilities.
Upon entering the space of Alfredo Jaar’s exhibition, one is met with a screen shifting between two intimate images of a moment shared between young survivors of the Rwandan genocide. This first work sets the scene for the rest of the exhibition, stirring and poignant. From the moment of entering the first door of the exhibition until exiting the last, the audience is guided from one work to the next. It appears as though the artworks have been curated in a progressive manner, first introducing the audience to the fundamentals regarding the genocide, and then gradually allowing the overwhelming reality thereof to take root in further works. Jaar successfully makes use of lighting, emphasising the seriousness of the matter by contrasting stark, white lights to dark sombre rooms and black walls. In doing so, Jaar calls attention to the artworks and its commentary on the lives that have been lost.
Central to the exhibition and one of the largest of Jaar’s installations is Real Pictures, (1995). This installation bears a silence that echoes loudly through the large room. The room is filled with well-ordered blocks of black boxes stacked upon each other, a dim light illuminates the top of the boxes, creating a halo of light around each pile and ensuring that each block is emphasised equally. Once you approach the blocks it becomes evident that on each box, a written description describes the image it contains. Within the black boxes are photographs taken by Jaar during his time in Rwanda in 1994. Through this installation Jaar attempts to convince the audience that this is a much more honourable way to comment on genocide. By keeping the photographs hidden within the boxes, the artist comments on the impossible action of representing trauma. Through this installation, Jaar attempts to establish a dignified space where it is possible to contemplate the realities of the genocide without becoming a victim to the culture of vacuous consumption and spectacle that is so standardised in the present day.
In the next room, the viewer is met with a black painted wall with a single typed line of illuminated white writing. This work, entitled The Silence of Nduwayezu, (1997), contains a certain sorrow that can only be understood once read. The illuminated wall text rests at eye level, drawing the viewer’s attention immediately. The viewer is required to walk from the right side of the wall to the left, in order to read the text. This action already evokes a certain anticipation within the viewer, making the impact so much more rousing. Whilst researching and travelling in Rwanda, Alfredo Jaar met Nduwayezu, a young boy who witnessed the killing of his parents. As a result of this trauma the boy was unable to speak for four weeks. Through his work Jaar strived to find a way in which he could narrate the sadness resting in Nduwayezu’s young eyes. Jaar realised that by concentrating the scale of the overarching tragedy on one individual with a name and a story, it allowed the viewer to make sense of the overwhelming disaster. Walking down the wall and reading the illuminated text allows the viewer to momentarily look directly into the eyes of Ndywayezu, causing the representations of media to cave in and for us to see it all through the very eyes that experienced the genocide.
In the installation Real Pictures (1995), Alfredo Jaar captures the tragedies and occurrences of various individuals and victims of the genocide. He allows the viewer to experience the genocide and general tragedy in a noble manner. Furthermore, as though taking one box and the trauma it holds and placing it all in a straight, illuminated line on the wall, The Silence of Nduwayezu (1997), speaks of the experienced catastrophe and the consequences thereof. As though opening the box and seeing into the personal pain of the victims, we are given the opportunity to meet Ndywayezu’s eyes and see the pain he felt.